Bush and Cheney testify in secret

Behind closed doors and without even a recording being made of what they said, President George Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney were questioned yesterday by the 11 September commission about the administration's failure to prevent the al-Qa'ida attacks.

Before the private session began, the American public had been unsure about the extent to which Mr Bush and his officials were warned about the threat of Osama bin Laden's terror network; afterwards, they were barely better informed. The only concession to the historical record agreed by the White House was to allow two staff members of the commission to take written notes.

Mr Bush had never wanted to face the commission he set up to investigate the circumstances of the attacks. The administration eventually agreed that he and Mr Cheney would appear together, neither under oath, in a single, closed-door session with the 10 commission members in the Oval Office of the White House.

That was hailed as a breakthrough by the commission but, in exchange for that concession, its chairman had to agree that Mr Bush, Mr Cheney and no other senior officials would face further questioning. After the three-hour session Mr Bush told reporters: "I'm glad I did it; it's important."

Asked if had been advised by his lawyer not to answer any specific questions from the commissioners, he added: "I answered every question they asked ... It's probably best I not go into the details of the questions and let them incorporate [that] into their report ... If we had anything to hide we would not have met them." The testimony of Mr Bush and Mr Cheney has gripped Washington, with critics claiming the President is trying to protect himself from scrutiny.

His defenders say presidents rarely testify in such circumstances and the former president Bill Clinton - also under scrutiny for what he did and not do to tackle the threat from al-Qa'ida - also spoke to the commission in private.

"This is a good opportunity for the President to sit down with members of the commission and talk with them about the seriousness with which we took the threat from al-Qa'ida, the steps we were taking to confront it, and how we have been responding to the attacks of 11 September," Mr Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

The commissioners arrived at the White House at about 9.15am and gathered for photographs around Mr Bush and Mr Cheney. Alberto Gonzales, a senior White House lawyer and two unidentified members of his staff were also present. The session began at 9.30am.

There was much for the commission members to ask. Timothy Roemer, a former Indiana Congressman and one of five Democrats on the commission, said he would ask Mr Bush about the contents of an intelligence briefing entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike in US" that was given to him on 6 August, 2001, and what he did with that information. "Why wasn't [the threat level] higher, given the threat levels in spring and summer [of] 2001?" he said.

Some relatives of those killed in the attacks on New York and Washington said they were looking for answers. "The purpose is not to lay blame but to assess possible reforms," said Kristen Breitweiser, from New Jersey, whose husband, Ronald, was killed.

The White House has been thrown on the defensive by claims that it did not take seriously warnings about the growing threat from al-Qa'ida in the spring and summer of 2001. Richard Clarke, Mr Bush's former counter-terrorism chief, and FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds say warnings were ignored.

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